(photo credit: Dan Yashinsky)
The ushpizin (guests) at the upcoming International Storytelling Festival in
Givatayim are Taffy Thomas, Queen Elizabeth’s storytelling laureate, Dan
Yashinsky, the founder of the Toronto Festival of Storytelling who was awarded
the Jane Jacobs Prize for his storytelling community work, and Ismail Fahdel,
the renowned Iraqi singer.
It is highly appropriate that the festival
should welcome to its succa these distinguished guests to tell their stories
during the Succot holiday, which commemorates the Jewish people’s 40 years of
wandering through the desert.
The importance of storytelling and its
potential social impact has been a key issue for Yossi Alfi, Israel’s master
storyteller and artistic director of the festival for the last 18
For the first time, the festival will include an international
conference on September 24 in which Alfi will talk about “The ten basic
principles of the storyteller in the community.”
Alfi was born in Basra,
Iraq, and arrived in Israel as a child in 1949. He studied theater at the London
Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and graduated with honors. Since then, Alfi
has embarked on a career that covers nearly every aspect of Israel’s artistic
and cultural spectrum, successfully readapting himself to new creative
He has written 23 books, including children’s stories, prose,
manuals on theater and poetry, the latest being Love poems for Sue , dedicated
to his wife.
In 1997, for Israel’s 50th anniversary, he directed and
performed in the opera Dream in Blue and White, which told the story of a
child’s voyage from Iraq to Israel in the late 1940s. He also founded and was
first director of the Givatayim theater.
One of the key threads in Alfi’s
work has been his use of different artistic outlets to explore the extent to
they can provide a channel for narrating and exposing critical social issues. An
example of this has been his contribution to the TV series, Stories on the Road
and his initiation of the community theater movement in Israel.
provides the material which art sculpts for its audience, who in turn leave
touched and perhaps even changed with new insight and knowledge.
becomes art, and art gives back to life, he believes.
festival epitomizes this philosophy. Every year, the public is invited to watch
staged performances at the Givatayim theater which retain the intimacy and
personal touch that the art of storytelling requires. The performers include a
wide range of high profile and controversial personalities in Israeli society:
stars of stage, screen, radio and TV, military personalities, academics, moguls,
politicians, diplomats and religious luminaries.
Also included are the
other important if sometimes less prominent in our society, vatikim (old timers)
whose invaluable, moving and poignant stories transport us through a complex
tapestry of Israeli life.
The festival has even become a household
commodity through repeated broadcasts of mesaprei sippurim (storytellers) on
television and radio.
In this way, everyone can draw from the particular
stories that might have particular relevance to them. Indeed, Alfi argues that
storytelling is a form of community art that unites people around a narrative,
which is why it provides a unique opportunity for crosscommunity dialogue as
well as fostering respect and compassion for others and their
Storytelling, aside from being extremely enjoyable, has the
ability to open doors and break down barriers. In Israeli society alone, this
should have farreaching consequences. Our society is certainly not homogenous
and the varying communities within it are a source for a fascinating array of
stories reflecting the customs and beliefs as well as the hopes and dreams of
the mosaic of religious and ethnic communities.
At times, these
narratives may conflict, but if Israel seeks real integration and social
harmony, then these communities need a platform from which to enter into
The festival also aims to tap the unique power of storytelling
internationally, gathering together the tales of communities unknown to us. In
the past, the festival has hosted guests from abroad, including Egypt and
But this year the festival reaches even further in its efforts to open doors – as the presence of our Welshman, Canadian
and Iraqi guests testifies.
Alfi heard about Taffy from a family member
in the UK who called to tell him that he had seen a performance by a wonderful
storyteller and wondered whether he had heard of him. Never one to miss a good
story, Alfi called and invited Taffy to Israel. The response was one of delight.
Taffy agreed to tell his magical tales and added that he was looking forward to
visiting “the land of the Bible stories,” as well as adding a story or two to
His performance involves allowing the audience to choose
the tales embroidered on his “tale” coat – a story jukebox – and hear one of
many extraordinary folk tales, which range from Inuit creation tales and African
animal stories to myths and legends rooted in the valleys and fells of the
English Lake District.
From the other side of the Atlantic, the
Toronto-based Yashinsky brings his unique brand of story telling, brilliantly
conveyed in his book Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the 21st
He has performed in Israel before and in many countries around
the world and as he is Jewish has a rich repertoire of hassidic material from
Poland and Russia. For the festival, he will tell the “The Tale of Stormfools
Cool Gig,” which describes a storyteller who has the greatest freelance job in
the world – spinning yarns to a rich recluse – but both he and his listener
discover that the value of stories cannot be measured by money.
not least, Fahdel, the first Iraqi singer to appear in Israel, will bring his
special musical talents to the Iraqi hafla (happening) that has become a
highlight of every festival.
These songs were composed by the
Jewish-Iraqi musical composers Salah and Daoud El Kuwaiti who were born in
Kuwait and came to Israel in 1950.
Their songs remain popular in Iraq,
Jordan and Arab countries in the Gulf.
The celebration of Salah and Daoud
El Kuwaitis’ centenaries will be marked in many Arab countries this
Apart from these guests from overseas, the program includes Rifka
Michaeli, who will talk about her childhood and teens, and Karin Ophir, who will
discuss her beloved father, Shaike Ophir. There will also be Aulcie Perry, the
iconic basketball player who converted to Judaism, TV crime reporter Dana Weiss
and lawyer Sassi Guez, as well as former IDF chief Dan Halutz and former IAF
chief Eitan Ben Eliyahu, who will talk about the great pilots of the air force.
The sheer diversity of the speakers will ensure a wide range of opinions as well
The fact that the festival this year celebrates the
Jewish Iraqi heritage, which is of course Alfi’s own, and that Arabs share this
culture and celebrate it is also a reminder of way in which Israeli identity is
Indeed, the festival hopes that the
importance of promoting pluralism in what will be a key theme of the
According to Zecharia, in the messianic age Succot will become a
universal festival and all nations will make pilgrimages annually to
Whether or not we live in a messianic age, Succot can be
universal in the here and now. This is why Alfi hopes to build a national
storytelling environment in which Israelis of all sectors of our society talk
about the happy, sad, incredulous and even tragic events that make the people of
Israel what they are as well as embrace the worldwide heritage of every
Israeli’s past and future.The public is advised that seating will be
limited. Tickets range from NIS 75 to NIS 95 and can be purchased at 03- 5616124
(People’s Theater) or 03- 5730661 (Box Office). There are reductions for groups